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Should Personal Trainers Lead with an Iron Fist?

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Believe it or not, people like to do a good job.

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My Dad only watches two types of movies. Teen chick flicks like Princess Diaries and war movies like Braveheart and Full Metal Jacket. It may explain why I hide a pretty sensitive and caring interior behind slabs of tough guy muscle. That’s probably more of a conversation for a therapist’s couch than an article on leadership.

If there is anything that those war movies I watched with my Dad taught me is that you must rule with an iron fist. Patton never asked his men if they felt like going into battle, he just marched them in. Gunnery Sargent Hartman wasn’t exactly touchy-feely when he yelled at Private Cowboy that, not only would he have sex with another man, but he wouldn’t “even have the courtesy to give him a god-damned reach around.”

So, when I became the Director of Training Operations at Peak Performance you would figure that I’d be the prototypical hard-ass. That I’d snap my men (and women) into line. That I’d employ some sort of zero-tolerance policy for the insubordinates who questioned authority.

In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve found that leadership, good leadership, true leadership, is much more nuanced and delicate than forcing your will down someone else’s throat. Here is what I’ve discovered to be the real keys to solid leadership:

Ask for less and you’ll get more

Be a personal trainer

Believe it or not, people like to do a good job. What people don’t like is to be micromanaged or asked to do something they don’t care about or aren’t good at. If you empower your staff to make decisions they will, much more often than not, make good ones. Decisions that benefit the client, the facility and themselves. It also allows your people to focus on the what they are best at or most like to do and that will shine through in their attitude and performance.

If Billy is an Olympic lifting specialist, allow him to work with clients who are looking to get better at these lifts. Have him run an in-house seminar for the other trainers on how to teach and execute the Power Clean. Make him the ‘go-to’ guy for that type of training. This may seem intuitive, but often times a guy like Billy gets put in the position being expected to excel at everything and nothing is going to make him less happy or less productive than forcing him to train using metabolic conditioning circuits when his heart just isn’t in it.

The bottom line is this: empower your people to do what they are great at. Allow them become leaders or specialists in the aspects of training or the business that they are most passionate about. A great leader allows others to lead.

The most important decision you’ll make

This also seems like a no-brainer but the most important aspect of leadership is surrounding yourself with the right people. And the most critical component of this comes in the hiring process. Two things happen at our conference room table. It’s where we hold our new hire interviews and where we discuss any disciplinary actions with trainers who have failed to uphold our standards. If we do a good job with the first aspect, we never get to the second.

My overly-simplified philosophy on the topic is this, hire someone who doesn’t care about how much money you’ll pay them and give them as much money as you can. You don’t want someone who is in it soley for the dough, you want someone who is in it for the passion. Because they love your brand, your facility and everything you stand for.

No one has a more fool-proof system to determine this than the online company Zappos. After a potential employee goes through the training program at Zappos, the company offers them two thousand dollars to leave and not work for the company. The reason: they want to make sure the people they hire aren’t just doing it for the cash. So if someone decides to take the money and run, they see it as a win as they wouldn’t want that person representing them anyway.

If you can find someone who bleeds your brand, cares about your clients and has incredible passion for the industry, you’ll find a team member who will add tons of value to the gym floor. And if you haven’t built a brand that’s worth being passionate about, that’s your problem not theirs.

At Peak, we don’t ask any of our trainers to sell. There are no monthly quotas. There are no floor shifts. We ask them to do what they are passionate about. Train clients. Train themselves. Learn about training modalities they care about. We have extremely little turnover when it comes to both clients and staff. This is not a coincidence.

Listen and be one of them

How to be a personal trainer

It is very easy to become married to the policies and procedures that you set at your facility. But don’t let strict adherence to policy prevent you from improving the experience on the training floor. Your staff is on the front lines every day. They see things that may improve the facility that you may not. By considering these types of suggestions you, at best, improve some aspect of the training environment or, at worst, prove that the members of your team are valuable and worth listening to.

We’ve employed a commission structure for securing new clients that has been hugely successful and was actually a suggestion of one of our staff. Package sales increased so ownership was happy. The trainer got a bit more money in his pocket so he was happy. Ownership and the trainer were happy so I was happy. Nothing makes me more elated than a situation where everyone wins.

Even though you personally may no longer be on the front lines, I also think it’s important to maintain some connection to the training floor. I still train a full roster of clients so my fellow trainers see me out there all the time. This proves to be valuable as they view me as one of them and are more likely to trust me and share their experiences and concerns. I can’t tell you how many times a trainer has used the phrase “you get it, your one of us” when discussing an issue.

The takeaway on this point is not to be so married to your procedures that you don’t allow any room for improvements. And by being visible and available you not only gain understanding of what’s happening on the floor, you also gain the trust of your staff.

I still have fantasies of standing on the top of a plyo box and screaming “you can’t handle the truth” or asking “what is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” during our next staff meeting. But for now I’ll stick with trying to empower my staff, make the right hiring decisions and walk the walk. It seems to make the ownership and staff happy. And, as you now know, if the ownership is happy and the staff is happy then I’m happy.

Are you a leader? Or just like Lego. Comment below and, as always, please share. Also make sure to “like” thePTDC on our Facebook Page.

Photo credits: Kalexanderson  Dunechaser doyoubleedlikeme

About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

As the creator and head coach of thePTDC, I'd have to say that this thing is pretty awesome. If you're interested in my book, it's called Ignite the Fire. Feel free to come hang out on my Facebook page where I talk explore the perfect balance between fitness, business, and living an awesome and fulfilling life.